Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Left Hand Meet Right Hand: Advantages of Distributed Development and Work from Home (Part III)

In Part I, developer Judy Tyrer discusses the disadvantages and disruption caused by mandatory colocation. In Part II, she demonstrates how distributed development can be more productive but cautions that team building is still necessary. In Part III, she lists the benefits of working from home in a distributed development environment.

Work From Home

Studies have shown an increase in productivity when workers are allowed to work from home. One reason for this is how people view their time. When a person is in an office, they view all the time in the office as time worked. This includes gabbing with co-workers, playing ping-pong, mid-day power walks, etc. When people work from home, the only time they view themselves as working is time actually spent working. Breaks to do the dishes, take the dog for a walk, etc. are not considered work time.

Working from home also helps reduce the person's carbon footprint, unless they are the rare individual that commutes by bike or walks. For companies in urban areas such as Los Angeles, where programs to discourage individual commuting are in place, this improves the company's score card. Commuting can also take up to 3 hours of a person’s day. Those hours can be split between the developer’s personal life and the work with gains in each.

Working from home allows parents to be more involved in their families and less dependent on outside care takers. The result is less time spent making arrangement for the children while at work, less anxiety on the part of the parent, and a result in higher concentration and higher quality of work.


But what about Ms. Myers’ assertion that people need to be in the same office to innovate? As I know of no studies verifying or denying her hypothesis I will address it with questions about innovation rather than with data.

How much innovation is needed?

Does every single employee at a company need to innovate? Do you want your build system to be innovative or would you prefer a tried and true system that has been doing its job for 10 years. Do you want innovative accountants thinking outside the box on your tax returns? I contest the idea that everyone in the company needs to be innovative.

Do we have to be in the same room to innovate?

Often meetings where brain-storming and innovation take place are dominated by the same loud voices. When one or more members of a team are dominant, others are often quiet and their input gets lost in the noise. While this can also happen in on-line meetings, the ability to type text into a chat field during the meeting allows people who may not be as verbally assertive to still ensure their input makes it into the meeting without having to develop skills in interrupting others. And the record of the meeting allows review which can facilitate greater innovation.

Do we want to innovate for the sake of innovation?

Innovation is the hot new buzzword. But is innovation for its own sake necessarily desirable. Just because no one has ever made an FPS where bullets travel a player defined path rather than a physics defined trajectory does not mean that particular innovation will increase sales, provide a better experience or is in any way a good idea.

Benefits versus Risks

The risks for developers in a distributed model mostly fall on the shoulders of middle management as it requires more than just showing up at the office and delegating tasks. Managers have to be willing to work with their team based on work results alone. No more can a manager say “if I don’t see you working, you’re not working” (a fairly ridiculous assertion in a creative medium as dependent on inspiration as on hard work). The manger must actually look at and evaluate the work of the employees and this takes time.

In addition, since managers don’t casually pass their employees, often giving them the illusion they are aware of what that person is doing, in a distributed environment managers must actually schedule time to sit down with their direct reports. Having worked for 2.5 years at one studio before ever receiving feedback from my manager other than a yearly raise, the value of regular meetings with direct reports cannot be over-stated. Managers and direct reports need to communicate regularly. The processes necessary for a distributed team are those which would help all teams, but the distributed nature of the work requires those processes be in place and be followed.

The benefits to allowing work from home can also be found in talent retention. Better communication, autonomy over work environment, and being judged by the quality of your work and not arbitrary measures are all benefits that help talent remain satisfied with their position. And while all of these can happen in a single location, they can also be easily overlooked in such an environment. Distributed development, when it works, puts these things as top priorities and they become integrated into the corporate culture for the benefit of all.  

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.


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